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Photo of chicken with tilted head. Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter at @erinellyse.

It’s happened to the best of us. First, the question: “so, what is your research on?” Then, the blank stare as you try to explain. And finally, the uninterested but polite nod and smile.

The other day, one of my past classmates asked me what I was working on. When I was given the blank stare from someone with an identical background to me, I realized that I have a problem. I’m tired of not being understood. No more hiding behind excuses like “my work is too complicated” or “they don’t actually care.” It’s time to figure out why we aren’t understood and what we can do to change that. What mistakes do we make when talking about our research?

Starting with “what” instead of “why”

Our mom/friend/stranger in a bar may ask “what” our research is on, but what they really want to know is “why” we’re doing it. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If we want to show them that our research is as exciting as we think it is, we should start with why it’s exciting. Maybe it could cure a disease and ease suffering; maybe Catherine the Great was a fascinating person whose life deserves more study; or maybe you just got annoyed with people talking to you about things you didn’t care about and decided to do something about it.

I find that I often start my explanations with “I’m studying x, which can be used for y,” but a “starting with why” explanation would begin more like “We need y  for a, b, and c  reasons, so I’m doing x  to see if I can solve this problem.” Giving a reason at the beginning provides a base to listeners that they can then build their understanding on.

Being too specific

Our research is complicated. Our day-to-day work usually involves thinking only about specific details of our project, which can make us forget about the big picture. When we’re explaining our work, we need to zoom out – and then zoom out some more. We want to be precise—we don’t want our research to be misunderstood, which is one reason why we do this—but the key to avoiding misunderstanding is to keep things simple. If our audience is truly interested once we’ve given our fascinating “why” pitch, they’ll ask us questions to narrow our focus, but often, the big picture is enough to tell people what they want to know.

My labmates and I have been lectured on doing this when talking to the media (a subject for another post, but many of the same rules apply). It’s usually a bad sign when the interviewer is falling asleep while listening… It’s important to get to the point in order to avoid having our research misunderstood.

Speaking outside of the listener's world

When we spend day after day thinking about our research, talking about our research, writing about our research, reading about our research… it’s easy to forget how little the outside world knows about our research. We know not to use jargon when explaining what we do, but the tricky part is often recognizing what our jargon is. Just because most people in your field know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t mean that the listener knows it. I’ve come across many terms that I believed were common, but after several confused looks, realized that I had to cut them out of my explanations. There is definitely a place for jargon, but it’s not here.

The problem of staying within the listener’s world extends past just individual words. When explaining, it’s important to use a narrative that he or she can relate to.  By describing our work using the same ideas that we use to understand it, we may end up in a situation not unlike trying to describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it. A trick is to come up with some analogies that are easily understood by the listener. For example, I might talk about a “lock and key” when explaining how a certain protein binds to an antibody. While the analogy may not be perfect in my mind, if it helps get the point across quickly, it’s worth using.

Not preparing

Probably the biggest mistake we make is not taking time to figure out how to explain what we do. We usually learn what works and what doesn’t by trial and error, but by taking a few minutes to think about how we can be clearer, this period of trial and error will become much shorter. There are a number of initiatives encouraging researchers to describe their work to a larger audience, such as the Dance Your PhD contest and the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitions. These are great ways to figure out how to explain your research coherently, both by entering the competitions and by seeing how others explain theirs.

We’re intelligent people studying interesting things and the world deserves to know about it. Let’s be understood!

Have you ever had an explanation go horribly wrong? Or maybe you’ve already figured out how to talk about your research? Share your stories and tips!

[Image by Flickr user Matt Davis used under creative commons licensing.]


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